What does it Cost to Drive across America?

Posted on Posted in Budgeting & Costs

Having just completed a 47 day road trip across the USA, here’s a breakdown of the cost of taking on such an adventure. It’s a fairly dry blog post I’m afraid and probably only interesting if you’re planning a trip like this or know someone who is.

 

We travelled as a family of 5; my wife and I and our 3 girls aged 3, 5 and 7 years old. We travelled comfortably, never wanted for anything but had to be careful of our spending so always kept an eye on our budget to make sure we didn’t overspend, jeopardizing our future travel plans. We took our time, travelling for 47 nights from early August through to the end of September. Our route took us from San Francisco, through Arizona, Utah and it’s National Parks, Colorado, Kansas and the Midwest, The Southern States then down to Louisiana and across to Florida before flying out of Miami (see earlier blog for more detail).

 

I’ve broken our trip down into sections; Travel, Accommodation, Food & Drink and Activities and have drawn a few conclusions at the end which I hope you’ll find useful. If you’re planning something similar and have any questions, drop us a line, we’d love to hear from you.

 

Travel – Let’s start with one of the biggest costs, the car. I shopped around extensively looking for deals, trying friend & family rates and other approaches but couldn’t beat the offer our travel agent put together for us through Affordable Car Hire who used Dollar Rent-a-Car to rent us a 7 seater Nissan Quest with unlimited mileage for $2961 + a $500 one-way fee payable at the other end. We had to pick the car up at San Francisco airport to get the best rate but this wasn’t a problem. This works out at $3461 just under $64 a day. We were pleased with the vehicle provided and the customer service at either end was good. The insurance policy on the vehicle also covered us for a minor scratch which she got early on in our trip. We also received a $150 cash back when we dropped the car off by filling in an on the spot customer service survey online.

 

 

The one regret I had is that when I picked up the vehicle I was “encouraged” to take out an additional insurance policy to cover me for roadside cover, lost keys, vehicle replacement etc. It cost $8 a day and the clerk was pretty persuasive that I really needed this coverage if I was going to be travelling such long distances with kids. I succumbed and signed up for it and have regretted it since. It was an additional $400 that we didn’t need to spend. I’ll know for next time.

The alternative to renting is buying a car and selling it at the other end and I believe this can potentially be a cheaper way of doing it. As a family of 5 however we needed the peace of mind of a rental from one of the big firms and didn’t want the hassle of sorting our insurances, vehicle registrations etc.

Gas / Petrol – I think it’s fair to say we wouldn’t have been able to afford our trip, over 6500 miles, 10,500 kilometres, if we were in Europe.

 

 

 

Our overall spend on petrol was $650. At an average price of $2.50 per gallon that’s 260 gallons – a fuel economy of 25 miles to the gallon or 4 gallons for 100 miles, $10 for 100 miles. We mostly drove on highways and would generally cruise at just a smidgen over the given speed limit.

We found the price for gas varied a fair amount ranging from $2.27 per gallon in Alabama to $2.64 just outside Nashville. California was at the top end too. There appeared to be geographical variances as well as regular day-to-day fluctuations but it still generally stays pretty low. Prices rose 10-15 cents per gallon whilst we were there due to Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston. We signed up for a Shell gas station card to save 5 cents on the gallon but found we were unable to use Shell stations often enough across the country to make it worthwhile for a $10-15 kickback .

 

 

 

Accommodation – Once we picked up our car we spent a total of $2500 on accommodation for our 47 nights giving us an average of $ 53 a night.  We camped for 18 nights, stayed at our friends holiday home for 5 nights, had 2 nights with a friend’s parents leaving 22 nights in more traditional “paid accommodation”;. This consisted of 3 nights in a log cabin in the woods. 1 in a B&B, 5 nights in city hotels and 13 memorable nights in motels.  

 

If we take out the 7 nights where we were kindly put up that’s $2500 for 40 nights – an average of $62 per night.

Camping was the big winner for us. Not only did it give us some of the best moments of our trip, it was good for our budget too. We spent $500 at Walmart to get us everything we needed for a comfortable camp. This included: a 5 person pop up tent ($120), 2 blow up mattresses and pump, sleeping bags, pillows, a small gas stove for cooking, table & camping chairs (this was possibly excessive), kitchen utensils and other bits & bobs. We sold our full set, which was still in surprisingly good shape for $250 via Craig’s List once we’d finished with it.


The camping itself is extremely good value. Having bought our National Park Annual Pass for $80 we benefitted from the parks well maintained and situated sites for prices ranging from $12 per night at the Grand Canyon to $20 p/n in Zion National Park. We paid $24 a night at a State Park in Florida and $40 a night at a private campsite with a swimming pool in Moab. We stayed at sites for tents (sometimes with electrical hook ups to charge devices etc). For all of our camping we turned up without reservations. You had to be there relatively early for some but we were never found wanting.

Hotels & motels is where you have to be a bit more careful and value for money doesn’t come as easily. Booking.com, hotwire.com and other similar sites have the market pretty much covered and being able to use those sites to your advantage can be helpful.  Presumably because supply exceeds demand there are some good deals available but you have to look for them and that can be tedious and time consuming.

 

Our good experiences included nice hotels in Saint Louis and New Orleans for under $150 an night. As far as Motels, nothing really stands out; we paid as low as, $43 for a hotel in Celebration near Disney World, $60 at America’s Best Value Inn in Kansas to a whopping $160 for a Friday night in Pismo Beach, California. The average for a motel would probably sit at around the $75 mark. They served their purpose for us though and with 2 usually decent sized beds we could sleep our 3 girls side by side one on one. When a breakfast was offered it was usually pretty awful and somewhat depressing. The quality of the swimming pools varied considerably but were never outstanding. In general, hotel prices varied significantly the further we were away from both coasts and big cities.

Food & DrinkOur Food & Drink bill came in at just under $5500 during our trip which was above what we budgeted for. With about a 50/50 split between restaurants and grocery stores our daily average for feeding and hydrating a family of 5  came in at $117 per day.

We found that our restaurant average would usually come in at $80-95. This was eating in mid-range restaurants, avoiding fast food chains and usually sticking to water with our meals. The kids would eat from the kids menu and Rachel and I would order a main meal or salad each. The VAT and tips add a solid 20% onto the quoted price, as a family of 5 it can quickly escalate.

Trader Joe’s was our go to grocery outlet out West but as we travelled east we’d either visit the expensive Whole Foods or resort to Walmart where prices are low but quality of produce is often lacking. We found that our determination to eat and feed our family healthily came at a significant cost.

When planning the trip I had a separate category of our budget for “essentials”. The truth is these items would often get grouped in with our food & drink section as we did our shopping. The US is fairly inexpensive for things like toiletries, medicine, sunscreen and  bits and pieces like new sandals for the kids but on a tight budget it’s important to watch this spending and of course it helps if you have it all before you set off on your travels but the reality is this is very difficult to do.

Camping and outdoor living helped us avoid restaurants in place of cooking by the fire. Using a cool box and having a good system of managing ice and by consequence your food stocks proved helpful (as long as we remembered to buy ice).

On the road we drank a fair bit of coffee. Our morning’s would often start by sounding out the local coffee roasters. It wa always a great way to start the day and good coffee but it adds up when you’re looking at $8-10 a day over the course of our trip.

Food & Drink is one area of the trip where you probably have the most control. You’re able to decide where to hold back and splash out accordingly. As a once in a lifetime trip you want to make the most of it but not to the detriment of the rest of your trip. It’s down to you effectively and how disciplined you want or need to be. I’m sure we could have done “better” in this area but we enjoyed our times eating out together as a family and feel it was usuually money well spent.

Activities – Dinseyworld ($550), The City Museum in Saint Louis ($100), a day out watching baseball (complimentary tickets through the friend of a friend) and a trip to the zoo (complimentary tickets from the hotel) go into this category. It doesn’t seem much over such a long trip but it didn’t feel like we were missing out. Most of our activities came in the form of hikes, swims, days at a beach or drives to go see something cool or intriguing. There’s enough out there to see and do and most of it is free. Out total activities budget hit $650

So our total budget for our trip came in at $12,760. – an average of $270 a day. A lot of money, no doubt about it but certainly worth every penny (see earlier blogs). The fact that this trip comes as part of a period of extended travel for our family means we’ve been able to reduce our home expenditure (rent, utilities, insurance etc.) to next to nothing which makes it more reasonable.

It came in just under what I had budgeted for pre-trip and what we overspent in terms our per diems, mostly on food & drink we made up for in accommodation and more nights camping under the stars.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful. If you’ve any questions or comments, give us a shout.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *